"Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 23:9)
"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him/her, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 22:21)
"When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him/her. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him/her as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Eternal One, your God." (Leviticus 19:33-34)
"In every generation, we should see ourselves as if we went free from Egypt." (Passover Haggadah)
Passover is coming once again. Along with members of Jewish communities all over the world, we will prepare and join together for Passover Seders. Many will change their diet for the week, choosing their own ways in which to fulfill the command to refrain from eating leavened foods as a way of remembering an ancient flight to freedom. Some will invite friends and neighbors who are not part of the Jewish community as guests to the Seder as a way of sharing a time-honored Jewish tradition, while performing the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests/hospitality. When our own Passover table reflects the diversity of the greater community, it offers us an opportunity to spread the message of liberation and liberty.
The central value of Passover, overcoming oppressors and oppression, is embodied in the very observance of the Seder. By remembering that "we were slaves," and declaring that, "now we are free," we are called upon to look out to the human community, in the here and now, and to make a difference in the ongoing struggle for freedom.
This message of Passover is based upon statements in the Torah about how we are to view the most vulnerable members of society because “we were slaves.” To know and relate to the feelings of another person is a call to show mercy and compassion to someone in need without judging or dismissing that person's predicament. These teachings about showing empathy towards individuals in dire straits direct us to refrain from viewing other members of society with disdain, arrogance, prejudice, or hatred.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has cited a passage from Deuteronomy (Chapter 10, verses 16 through 19) to strengthen this ancient reminder of how God wants us to reach out to others with generosity and mercy “because we were slaves”: "Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, mighty and awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Each of us may choose, if we wish, to combat all types of oppression that surround us and to alleviate suffering. We may devote ourselves to opposing anti-Semitism and other expressions of bigotry directed towards particular groups of people. We may pursue a variety of strategies to stand up to bullying or abuse of power in all sorts of contexts. We may donate food and clothing for people in need through local agencies in which congregants already participate. We may work for equality and fairness locally and throughout the world. We may consider avenues to assist people fleeing from oppression and violence. We may simply sit and listen to stories of people inside and outside our community to broaden our own body of knowledge and awareness of the wide range of possibilities for how we can live our lives and how we can deal with challenges and celebrate the joys that come our way.
As we sit down at our Seder tables, may we give thanks for what we have and identify the messages and values we can share with the greater community and with the world. By seeing ourselves as having been freed from slavery, the lessons we learn from this festival can enable us to move into the future with confidence, compassion, resolve, and hope.